Last week, the Washington Post published an article about the growth and influence of - a social media site that allows users to launch online petitions (and runs campaigns for advocacy groups to make money). With 6 million users posting 10,000 campaigns a month, it's no wonder the Post calls "one of the most influential channels for activism in the country." You can read the article to understand some of the high-profile successes has had and appreciate the impact it is having.  

While the numbers alone tell a story, a historic shift is taking place. It's a subtle shift, quietly manifesting itself amidst the inertia of status quo politics, polarizing rhetoric and behind-the-scenes shenanigans we can only begin to understand by watching Hollywood movies (or reading court transcripts of corruption trials). The shift, simply put, is a re-imagination of democracy - a change "[to] the balance of power between individuals and large organizations" as noted by Ben Rattray,'s founder.  

At the Independent Sector conference I attended this past September, Ben was a featured speaker talking about the entreprenurial spirit of failing fast, learning from your mistakes, and leveraging your successes. As the President of an organization that fancies itself a part of the "shift", I meekly posed a question to Ben - Do you feel that your work, while generating lots of participation, is meaningful? 

He responded that had received some criticism for having created a device for "slacktivism" - the idea that people aren't really engaged with an issue if all they're doing is taking 5 minutes to electronically sign a petition and move on with their day. Yet, he did feel their efforts were meaningful; those minutes and signatures add up and change does occur.

And, in my view, that change is profound. History always has a way of repeating itself, particularly when individuals realize and act on their shared interests without necessarily delegating those responsibilities to a handful of largely idle representatives. As quoted in the Post article, Ben's sense of what is and what will be is pretty damn exciting:

“The power unlocked when people have the capacity to more rapidly and effectively organize with others is unprecedented in human history. [...] But what’s needed for this to be truly transformational is a solution that turns people-power from a force that is episodically realized to one that is deeply embedded in our political and social lives — something that makes people-power pervasive and sustained.”

As we continue to evolve our online engagement utility and community engagement tactics, I look forward to seeing the people-power emerge on/through the Civic Commons. 


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Copyright © 2012 Mike Shafarenko; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

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